MLK Day 2019

More than ever, I think the only way for me as a person with the privilege of white skin can respectfully approach remembrance for Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr is not to speak, but to listen. Racism is real, it is pervasive, and it is incalculably damaging. As a white person, it is my responsibility to make space for non-white voices, to listen to them, to heed their insight, respect their experience, and learn from their wisdom.

So, in respect and solidarity, to celebrate this remarkable, brilliant, sorely-missed man, I offer only this:

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Unchangeable

There are so many things in the world you can’t change:
Your loves, your fears, your yesterdays.
They aren’t choices, weaknesses, failures;
They just are.

You’ve heard the poem, or maybe a prayer:
Grant strength, courage, wisdom,
But like all prayers, it falls short
When it forgets to keep going.

To know what you cannot change is only a beginning
And the least useful part of the journey.
It’s too easy to stop
And never keep going.

You can’t change your yesterdays and their glorious mistakes,
And no prayer will ever make them easier to recall,
But they are past.
And no one else will ever care about them the way you do.

You can’t change what turns your mind to screaming mud
And makes impossible everything but fear.
Forgive yourself. Breathe.
Fear passes in time.

You can’t change what you love, or who you are.
You shouldn’t.
Don’t.
So love. And Be.

There are so many things in the world you can’t change.
But so what?
Those things you can’t change can’t change you either
Unless you let them.

Don’t let them.

We all know I’m really, really bad at poetry, right? Okay. Just checking.

But, just because I am bad at it doesn’t mean I don’t have the same human need to produce it as those who are masters of the form. There’s something about poetry, the expression of it, that fills a gap in me left by any other creative process. Even songwriting doesn’t quite do what poetry does. Good, terrible, cliche, useless, it doesn’t matter. I don’t write because it’s *good.* I write because it’s *me.*

And sometimes the words that get tangled up in me won’t come out in the prose of a story, or the nice meter and rhyme of a song. Sometimes I just need to let my disjointed inner soul-scrawl find its way out into disjointed, slightly vague lines. And that’s okay, too. The human need to create is important, the most important of all our impulses. Not just creating more human beings so the species doesn’t go away, but creating that which never existed before. Creating new art — songs, stories, paintings, sculptures, knitted masterpieces. Creating new ideas — scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, philosophical insights. Creation, adding to the world, is what, in a very real sense, we are here to do.

I have believed all my life that what we put into the world matters, even if it happens when no one knows or sees. If I sing a song about freedom and hope, even one no one hears, the vibrations of that song still touch the molecules of the air. They still resonate with the wind blowing outside. And maybe one quark of that impact will vanish only to fire in the mind of someone who desperately needs the ghostly memory of a happy song. And every time I put that song into the world, I backed it up with more deliberate action. I invested in more art, found more sources of inspiration, lifted up other singers to hear their songs. Did my song touch someone? I’ll never know, and that’s not what matters. My song made me better, and the better me turned around to better the world.

Life right now is pretty stressful. I’ve got a lot going on, and much of it is difficult or scary. I retweeted something today that said “When you don’t have time to cry because all that does is take away time from you figuring it the fuck out.” It’s an apt summary.

For me, the very first thing that helps me when stressed is to piece problems apart and solve them; breaking them into component parts and manageable pieces is a critical part of the process. But I also can’t survive solving problem after problem after problem with no respite. That’s a really quick path to burnout.

Sometimes I just need to stop. Breathe. Feel. And let whatever is bubbling up inside spill out in whatever capacity releases it from me. Today, that was poetry.

Did it solve anything? No and yes. It didn’t fix what needs fixing, didn’t decrease my to-do list or give me more hours in the day. But it gave me a moment of stillness in myself. It gave me a chance to listen to my own feelings, to let them be heard, to meditate on them and find focus and energy in them.

And the answers are right there in what they were trying to tell me.

I can’t change a lot of what I’m dealing with right now, but I don’t have to. I just have to keep going, keep dealing, and and keep fighting to prevent these things from breaking me down. However it all ends, if I can do that much, I’ll emerge fully intact. And that’s about all I need.

That and about 2,000 more words of writing done today. Because it’s a day ending in Y, so of course there is writing to be done. And now that I’ve gotten the (not good, I know, doesn’t matter) poetry out of my system, I can focus on prose and narrative and characters and how THEY feel, rather than how I feel. So it served multiple purposes, and that is worthy, too.

Onward!

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Welcome to 2019

I’ve said before I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. It’s nice to point at a specific date and say “that is when I’m going to change,” but it’s far more important to be able to do it without any particular event or milestone to signify it. A change made for oneself is more genuine when it isn’t made on the timetable of the Gregorian Calendar.

But I can set goals for myself. In no particular order, here they are:

1.) Continue (or get back to) writing.

I didn’t really stop writing last year, but I sure as hell slowed down. Now I’m at 2 years in a row of about half the productivity I would like from myself. This is a little weird given that I have enough stuff to post every other day for pretty much the duration of 2019, but it’s all short. I already have a 3-novel idea for fic sorted in my head that I’ll start putting together as soon as I have fewer other, more immediate chores to accomplish (like dishes and laundry). However, once I churn through those, we’ll have to see how things are going. Depending on #2, my additional goal might be to write the next book for querying. As always, I want to make sure I have enough weeks of content for 2020, but there’s an additional pressure to get stuff written — if all works out as I dearly hope, I might find myself with less time and capacity for fic writing in the future.

This was a conversation with my copy-editor; she made the point that actually publishing a work is going to take away from other writing time as it is, and publishing means being ready to write the next in the series or the next series, which leaves even less space for fic. She asked me what I would want to make sure I got written if I was someday soon not to have 47 weeks of fic to post. It helped me immediately prioritize my writing. I do want to get this new 3-novel thing done, but then I need to go back to my roots and make sure I’ve put enough into my stories and my ongoing series to know that I could walk away for a time and not feel that I’ve left my fandoms hanging.

(Which really means the next entry or even 2 in Fate Is A Gift.)

Beyond that? I’m hoping this is the year I get back to 300,000 of finished writing (not started and incomplete stories). Even if they’re oneshots, even if they’re short, even if they come in fits and starts, I want to get that production back. I miss it.

2.) Continue querying.

It would be NEAT if I could make this goal “get published” but we’re trying for realistic expectations here. The thing about publishing, besides that it is a business and that cannot be underestimated, is that it is a sphere in which I as an author have very little control. I can write the story. I can edit the story. I can query the story.

That’s where my control pretty much ends.

I can’t make agents want to represent me. Even the best query in the world won’t mean that my novel is the one an agent is looking for. Even a kickass query letter that gets me requests for full manuscripts won’t guarantee that the agent doing the reading becomes an agent wanting to sign me. That’s just reality.

And then for publishing, it’s that all over again. Even having an agent doesn’t guarantee that the book will get picked up by a publishing house. It doesn’t ensure it’ll make it into the world. And it absolutely, positively doesn’t mean that it’ll get read or earn much in the way of actual money. Other than being a good person who is honest and kind to work with, and taking feedback as politely and thoughtfully as possible, there is literally nothing I can do with this process.

So I can’t set a goal of “get published” or even “get an agent.” I can only set a goal of querying my 50 agents as I told myself I would for the current novel. If none of those pan out, then I write the next one and query it. Getting to those 50 might be tough, not because there aren’t 50 agents who are amazing and who I would love to work beside, but because that means bracing for 50 rejections. It’s a lot some days. But 50 is the magic number I gave myself, and come hell or high water, I’m going to try.

3.) Improve upon the exercise plan.

Last year, the transition to working from home also meant a transition to being able to work out during the day. I got away from it in the couple of months with the chaos of the holiday season and the Illness of Fuckery, but I want to get back to it. Events in my personal life in 2018 drove home how fragile we all are as people. The slightest thing can stack up and leave you dead on the floor before you even realize. Exercise doesn’t prevent cancer; it doesn’t promise a long, healthy life. But it does help.

Any time I faltered last year and hit the “do I REALLY wanna go work out today?” stopping point, I reminded myself that exercise isn’t just what helps me be healthier now. It is also an investment for the future. And if working hard on my exercise plan today means I have a better shot of making it to my 100th year healthy and of sound mind, that I have a chance of spending all those years with the people I love, then I am going to give it all I’ve got. I really, really want to be here for the long haul. And that takes work.

4.) Be a better CoHead to CVG Operations than last year.

I got thrown into CoHeadship last year due to circumstances somewhat behind my control. For the most part, I think I did okay. But there is always room for improvement, and with all the exciting changes to CONvergence for 2019, there’s also a whole extra bundle of work to be done. I’m not asking myself to be perfect. I’m not expecting myself to make zero mistakes. But I am setting the goal for myself that I will feel more comfortable as a CoHead this year by putting in more and better work ahead of time. I am setting a goal of managing my time and my resources (especially mental/emotional) better at Con. I am setting a goal of taking on a little more weight now that there is more to be passed around, and fewer shoulders to bear it. Last year was the year of chaos. This year, I am hoping, is the year I get into a rhythm which I can sustain for a few more.

5.) Sort out the housing situation.

This one’s a little unexpected. So, we’ve been thinking a lot about selling our house and buying a condo in downtown instead. Much of the discussion has been around the logistics — how much space would we give up? what’s it like living in a dense, urban setting? how do we get all our stuff and crap out of the house? — but the origin point of the idea has to do with various limitations. I have an absolutely fatal allergy to wasp stings. The next time I get stung could very well kill me. Which means I can’t go outside for the entirety of spring, summer, and fall. I can’t mow the lawn, can’t weed the garden, can’t even hang out in my own backyard in a lawn chair. So, not only are we paying for property I literally cannot use, but it also means that the work of that property falls almost entirely to Sarah, and that is profoundly unfair.

There are other pieces, too. My job situation is currently stable, but should that ever change there aren’t a lot of options in our neighborhood. There’s a good chance I’d end up having to commute to the city, and even a bus ride means 50 minutes or more out of my day each way. That’s a lot of time to take away from Sarah, from writing, from CVG, etc. A lot of the reason I’ve never really considered leaving my current job is BECAUSE I don’t want to have to deal with that commute. But living downtown would mean I could swap jobs if I so desired and I could simply walk to work. (Though the preference is still working from home because it ROCKS.)

There are concerns, too. We currently live a bit over a mile from some of our dearest friends and we see them a lot — that would change. We currently have everything from a dentist and a vet to a favorite tea shop and Indian restaurant in our area — we’d have to find new. We don’t know how we would feel about collective living spaces if, for example, the walls or floor/ceiling were thin and it had an impact on when (and how loudly) we could watch our movies. And we are utterly, almost fanatically picky about space. If it isn’t absolutely perfect, we won’t be happy in it. It took us the better part of a year to find our current house. And I think living here has made us even more picky.

Which, in its own way, is a good thing. It means we can walk into a space and know instantly how we feel about it. And while there are some things we can compromise, there are many more that we won’t.

So my hope would be to make a decision this year. Either we find a condo and buy it and move into it, or we scrap the idea for a couple of years and focus on making improvements in this house instead. Honestly, I want the condo more than I want to stay here, partially because I do feel so trapped with nowhere to go (whereas Minneapolis has a SKYWAY), but I also think that taking away the worries would help me a lot. How many nights have I had to run and peek in the basement worrying about flooding? How many winter storms did we anxiously watch, knowing we’d have to shovel the driveway? How many nights did I hear weird sounds in the neighborhood and brace for a home invasion? A condo would have its own problems, but it might do wonders for my baseline, nagging sense of worry.

But we’ll have to see.

So that’s my 2019. Write, query, exercise, CoHead, and condo. No matter how it all turns out, it’s going to be a roller-coaster of a year — and that’s just speaking about my life, not the wider world and its myriad doings. And we’re already on the first hill.

Therefore, to close, I’ll borrow this line from the movie “Parenthood” — because it’s never been more appropriate for me, I think:

You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.

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Closing 2018

Well, we’ve reached the last blog post of the year. I might have had more to say, but most of my energy has been stolen by a strep mimic. That’s an AWESOME way to end the year.

Anyway.

I don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious festival, though I do celebrate it culturally. For me, this time of year is the celebration of the darkness returning to light, of the cold to come which leads to warmth, of the death of the past year which will be reborn into the next. Even if the coldest days are ahead of us (and they are, at least in Minnesota), the darkest are over.

Other than “Carolyn’s Party,” there aren’t a lot of great songs for this time of year that really speak to me. So I’ll leave you with a more generic celebration of life and the earth and the cycles that connect us all.

I wish you all a peaceful end to 2018. May 2019 be blessed and beautiful and better than 2018 by far!

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Great Moments

Next week will be the last post until January, FYI. Lots to do in the meantime!

Last night I caught the last part of the 2004 movie Miracle on TV. It’s my all-time favorite sports movie, but it’s also probably in my top 10 movies ever. I cannot get through it without getting a little teary. Really.

If nothing else gets me, and there’s plenty that can, the “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” game-call always does it. The rawness of that emotion…well, there’s a good reason they used the original call from the live broadcast rather than getting Al Michaels to redo that line.

The Miracle on Ice was a hockey game, fundamentally, but it was such a moment in world history, too. And it was the proof that hard work and trust can take you farther than anyone will ever expect if you never, never give up. The entire world was against them, but those twenty young men chose to believe in what Herb Brooks told them — that they could stand against everyone and win. And Herb Brooks believed because he saw more than talent or greatness in those boys. He saw trust. He saw dedication. And he saw courage.

Herb Brooks changed the way the USA looked at hockey, and the way it is played to this day in this country. He did it by looking deeply into the game and its players, and finding more than others had seen. He saw that you can’t win games by putting 20 “best” players on the ice; you have to win by putting the right 20 players on the ice. Not 20 players who play perfect games individually, but 20 players who play one perfect game together.

He expressed himself in a very unique way sometimes, and his Brooksisms were legendary among the kids he coached. For years, I used to have some of them written on a note at my desk. The note got lost in an office move, but rewatching the movie brought them back. They’re not always kind, but they are always invigorating.

“You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

“You can’t be common, the common man goes nowhere; you have to be uncommon.”

“Boys, I’m asking you to go to the well again.”

“The important thing is that those twenty boys know in twenty years, they didn’t leave anything on the table. They played their hearts out. That’s the important thing.”
(This last was from the movie, not an actual Brooksism.)

As I’m looking ahead to 2019, there are a lot of unknowns. I don’t know what the world will look like in a year. I don’t know if I will be able to get an agent and publish a book, or if I’ll put it in a drawer and try again with something else. I don’t know what other seismic events will shake my emotional landscape.

What I do know is that I can’t possibly avoid being surprised, and that it’s as likely to be a good surprise as it is to be a bad one.

For myself, sometimes I’ve found that when it is difficult to look forward, it is easier to imagine looking back. The future holds anxiety and who-knows-what. But if I imagine looking back at 2019 in 2039, then I can figure out what it is I’ll want to see. I can’t know about the events, but I can know that I will want to be able to say that I gave my best, that I didn’t back down when it mattered, that I never gave up. I can know that, whatever comes, I want to be able to stand up and say that I didn’t leave anything on the table.

I look back at 2017 and 2018 and I see the fruits of despair and worry and dread. I see the stresses, the cracks. I see the times I gave myself a break and forgave myself for needing time and space and whatever else it took to stay mentally and emotionally healthy. And those are all okay.

But I want to do better in 2019.

I want to be able to look back at 2019 and know that I went to the well again and drew water from the bottom of the world. I want to look back at 2019 and know that I didn’t let myself fall into the messy habits of 2017 and 2018 — that I pulled myself back up to my better habits, my stronger work ethic. I want to look back at 2019 and know that I accomplished something. Whether that is a published book or 300,000 words of writing, right now, I dunno. But one of the two, at the least.

If not both.

What’s the point in aiming low, after all?

In the famous speech Herb Brooks made to his team before the 1980 medal round against the USSR, he says this (I highly recommend watching it because Kurt Russell knocks it out of the park):

Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight.

One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game, not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them and we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.

You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight.

This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time! Now go out there and take it!

I don’t know if 2019 is my one game. I don’t know if it’s my do-or-die. But I don’t know that it isn’t, either. I don’t know that 2019 isn’t the year that everything hangs in the balance.

All I can do is act like it is.

All I can do is know, when 2019 is closing, that I didn’t leave anything on the table. That I went to the well again and again and it never ran dry. That I fought to be uncommon, even when the world made me feel too small to stand.

2019 may not be my time.

But it might be.

Do you believe in miracles?

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The Light Through the Window

(I’m exhausted after the Twin Cities Women’s Choir concerts on Saturday, so this is going to be short.)

Illuminations is always such an important time for me. Since I don’t celebrate Christmas in a religious way (just cultural), my own feelings in the dark of the year are fed not by carols in the street and a hundred lit trees in the mall, but by the time spent with my musical community to contemplate the darkness, the growing shadow, and the light that comes after when the night finally gives way.

It’s an apt metaphor even in bright, effortless days. And these days, when the world seems darker than ever, that brightness has to come from inside us.

So it was worth every sore muscle, every aching inch of my feet, and my very unhappy knee, to spend a day on the risers with 100 sisters singing songs about the colors and lights that fill the world when shadows hang dark and heavy over us. And, yeah, I cried a couple of times because I do that. I’m sentimental. I always cry.

But there’s just something that happens when we raise our voices up together, beating back despair and cold with nothing but will and courage and joy and harmony. Anyone who has performed knows that feeling, and anyone who hasn’t never could. Suddenly, it’s like you are no longer just one. You are every person in the room, singer or audience or director, and you are complete, because your voice is one of so many.

And if I ever catch up on sleep, I’ll have an inner light well-kindled again to get me through the next few dark weeks.

I give you this song by Ann Reed. The choral group singing in the background is actually Encore from the TCWC, Sarah and myself amongst them. We were invited to sing with her for this album, and it just so happened that we got to sing on my 2 favorite songs she recorded. I can’t hear this song without thinking about the choir, or about my group of people who are friends and family and home. And in the dark, they are the light in my window.

“When a small quiet few sat together —
Faces she knew and had spent
A season’s for worse or for better;
She raised up her glass then to them.

And she said, ‘You’re my friends,
And wherever life takes me or when,
You’re my home, that’s the truth,
And the light through the window is you.’

So bring your lamps and lanterns here
On this last darkest day of the year.
Let our hearts be burning bright —
Through the window, I see you tonight.”

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Writing Year in Review: 2018

Well, 2018 went a little worse than 2017, if we’re being very strict about it. I wrote even less than 2017, and finished fewer works. That said, I did a lot more with that less.

The single long work was a project that grew out of my watching through the entire-to-date series of NCIS: Los Angeles and deciding that, yes, every single episode had a tag that needed to be written down. Because I cannot watch that show and not want more of the interactions between Callen and Hetty. I CANNOT. So during the watch-through, I started writing them, one episode at a time.

(Many thanks to Sarah’s patience on that one. Have you ever tried bingeing a series with someone who has to pause for 20-30 minutes after every episode to write? But she did!)

Some of the oneshots were short — 600 words or thereabouts. Some cracked several thousand. But I wrote them all, reacting to the events of the episode or the overall plot of the series or just putting in some extra snark because, really, there is always more snark. It’s amazing to me that I got it done in the time that I did — I started the project in April and I wrapped it up in the end of August. And that with at least 2 weeks off around the TCWC concert and 3-4 from CONvergence. So while the stats themselves aren’t very flattering (because the counts of days don’t include those times when I very rightly forgave myself and took a break) the actual product per day is pretty impressive. And it meant I was writing scenes every day, multiple times a day. As an exercise, it was a fantastic way to dig into short story-telling with a constant source of new prompts and ideas.

The other writing from 2018 was all the oneshot project I talked about earlier this spring. I didn’t write all 47 that I had planned, mainly due to the NCIS:LA writing that dominated my thinking. But the ones I did write made me happy, and they stretched me in new ways, too.

But the thing that isn’t anywhere in these stats is the work done on the novel prior to querying it.

I do a lot, or even most, of my editing in bursts. I edit as I go — I know no writers who don’t. What’s writing at all if you don’t write it the way you mean it the first time? But I reread a lot between the initial writing and whatever comes next. For example, of the oneshots I wrote this year, I think I’ve reread and edited each of them at least 4 separate times, usually months apart. Then, usually 2 weeks before something goes up online, it gets a deep edit where I’m really focusing on “does this all lead where it should?” The week I post it, it gets another deep edit. Sometimes I take longer to edit a oneshot or a single chapter than I did writing it the first time around. Not because I make a lot of changes, but because I consider the ones I do make rather carefully.

Mistakes still happen, though. Can’t be right all the time.

With the novel out for query, though, it was a WILDLY different process. First, I gave it 2 separate deep edits this spring. Then I sent it to my beta readers, who helped call out scenes that needed work or bits that could be better or characters who would benefit from some more flesh on their bones. Then I gave it ANOTHER deep edit. Then I handed it to a person I truly trust for a solid round of copyediting.

We should note that copyediting is the thankless, utterly necessary stage which requires a mind of precision and focus and unrelenting attention to detail, and no matter how good I am, I will NEVER be as good as the best copyeditor. So I’m glad I had a good one to help me out.

When she was done with it, then I gave it YET ANOTHER deep edit before sending the first query. I’ve done another deep edit since, because until this thing is in the hands of a printer, there is always both the time and the need to improve it. It’s that whole “it will never be perfect and never quite live up to the majesty of my vision” thing — without being so silly. But I think every day I learn something new about writing, I want to go put that into the work to make it the best it possibly can be.

So that’s 5 separate readings and edits of the novel just by me, plus my beta readers, plus my copyeditor. And the manuscript grew not so much by wordcount as it did small improvements. Bits and pieces added to scenes, or a couple of new scenes added. I don’t think it ultimately changed more than a few hundred words here or there, but those changes mattered.

They don’t help my year-end wordcount, though.

But it’s all right. Giving myself the time to focus on the novel for query was important, and I wouldn’t sacrifice it for anything. Giving myself the time to do things other than writing, specifically TCWC and CVG, is super important. And forgiving myself for not writing 300,000 words is important, too. I think I needed a break, because I’m already looking forward to projects in 2019 with more enthusiasm than I had at this time last year. If a year “off” as it were can amount to this, then I’m still doing something right.

And, besides. 2018 is just one year. My writing tracking goes back to 2004. Win, lose, or draw, I’ve written a metric shit-ton in 14 years, and I can be very proud of that. Sure the totals for 1 year aren’t spectacular, but taken as part of a whole, they’re a very strong part regardless.

And 2019? Well, we’ll see. Either I’ll do way better, or I won’t.

But I’ll still be writing stories, and posting them every week, and maybe maybe maybe even publishing one out in the world and not just online.

Whatever happens? 2019 is a year of promise, and I look forward to the challenge.

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Who Am I? (Part 8: The Inadvertent Pillar)

I’ve talked these last few weeks about the choices I’ve made or the aspects of myself I rely upon in order to find my way. Some of them were hard-fought, learned over time and through experience. Others came to me naturally as a part of myself that merely needed to be recognized and embraced.

But then there are two things that I don’t think come from me at all. They just are.

Joy and Love.

I’m rarely bored for long, and a lot of that is my ability to find humor pretty much anywhere. Sarah and I have long joked that all we need is one another and some snark and we’re good to go. Hours in an airport with a dead phone? Whatever. We’ll make do. Car trips of 14 hours at a time? We have music, too, but we can still fill up the time laughing (and live-tweeting on the part of the non-driver).

I am easily amused, but I am also deeply amused. I don’t fight the tug of childish laughter or silliness. That doesn’t mean I get really into fart jokes — even as a child I couldn’t care less. But my sense of humor has not necessarily matured; it has just expanded. So I can laugh myself to tears at a good story or a movie or a series of terrible and excellent song parodies or the continuing adventures of scandalizing people in the grocery store by having way too much fun. I kinda figure if I’m not having fun, I should make my own fun. And I regularly do.

But joy isn’t just about not being bored, or finding things funny. It’s about looking out at a perfect, orange and pink and yellow Minnesota sunset and feeling ALIVE. It’s about watching my friends open gifts from one another and feeling profound gratitude. It’s about being able to set a table for 11 people so that we all have a home on Thanksgiving.

Joy isn’t just happiness. It isn’t just laughter. It’s relishing all the goodness of being alive.

And I don’t think I can take credit for it, because it has always been mine. The only work I had to do to live a joy-filled life was not to stifle what was already present.

Now, this is something that falters badly when I hit a downswing. It’s really, really hard to feel the wonder of life when some part of your brain kinda wants you to throw in the towel. It’s the first thing to fade when depression sets in, and the last to return. And it’s not something I can “fix” when I’m depressed, either. I can behave with Honor or Kindness no matter what I’m feeling, and Defiance is a regular way of keeping the downswing at bay. But joy comes and goes, and I have as little say over it when I’m at the bottom of the world as I do when I’m at the top.

But it defines me regardless.

I’ve been teased for my enthusiasm, always kindly, but rather frequently. It seems to shock or surprise people that I can be so ardent in my feelings. That I can say I think something is “amazing” or “awesome” as often as I do and mean it every bit as much. That’s not me watering down the language. It’s that I AM still amazed, and I AM still in awe. And I think that enthusiasm is because of my capacity for joy.

How can a person look at the universe and not feel wonder without joy? How can a person laugh delightedly with their favorite companion without joy? How can a person feel their heart stutter in wordless admiration without joy?

But I didn’t do anything for this. It just happened to me. I guess it’s another point of privilege, one that I didn’t earn, and can only appreciate and share.

Thinking about it a different way, if emotions are on a scale, and your capacity to feel is set, then I guess there should be less surprise that I can feel such profound, overwhelming joy or awe or amazement or gratitude. Because I have also felt equal measures of pain and grief and self-hate and despair. Some people’s ups and downs are more even, like a kids’ roller coaster. Mine is the biggest, meanest, fasted, wildest of rides.

And as much joy as I have, I have even more love.

I’ve never been able to not love people. I’m scarcely capable of hatred; I scarcely comprehend it. I love people who are my whole life, and people who walk beside me in life, and people I lost long ago, and people who have not yet come to be, and people who hate my guts, and people I would probably be more healthy if I could let go. I love strangers and friends alike.

When I am at CONvergence and I look out over the convention at the 7,000 people clustered together in their cosplay or their fun t-shirts or whatever makes them the happiest, I can’t tell you how my heart swells. Not only because I feel humbled to be a part of this community, and welcomed in it, and grateful to have found it. But also because these are MY people. And I care about them in a way I find difficult to put into words. It’s the same way I feel at Pride when I look around and know that the LGBTQA community are my people. The same way I feel that the TCWC are my people.

I don’t love all people the same — that, probably, isn’t possible. But there are kinds of love. And even when it is no one more close to me than a cashier at the gas station or someone walking a dog down my street, I am fully aware that my recognition of their humanity, the light and soul within them that is like my own, is love.

It’s not something I had to teach myself. For good or ill, and sometimes it was REALLY QUITE A LOT of ill, I’ve always loved easily. My heart just reaches out and feels for others. Even if I’d rather it didn’t, even if I’m tired of the brush-off or blow-back or denial. But you can’t change what you feel, and I wouldn’t even if I could. Because it is marvelous to love people.

Even when they don’t love you back. Even then, it is worthy.

But it’s no great accomplishment of mine. No virtue I have honed.

And don’t confuse my ability to love people in theory or in practice with an ability or willingness to trust. I certainly don’t trust readily or easily. The fact that I feel as much as I do has absolutely NO RELATION to how willing I am to show those feelings to others, or allow others to steer me through them. I can feel the love of humanity for the person in line beside me at the store, but I won’t invite them into my thoughts or my feelings. I won’t show them my weak spots or my fears. I won’t tell them when I am hurting or how badly.

But I don’t have to trust them to feel love.

Trust, like Kindness, is a choice. Love and joy are seeds that grew inside me, planted by who knows what.

I still don’t necessarily count love or joy among my pillars, though. How one defines oneself comes not from how one was born or the gifts one received — it comes from the choices and actions one makes. Lack of action is a choice, too. If a person has all the money in the world and never shares it, shows no charity, then that defines them. If a person has the ability to endure something difficult but opts not to bother, then that is their choice and that is who they are. It doesn’t matter how good the intentions are, or what advantage a person got at the start of the game — it matters what they do with the cards they do have.

I was dealt cards of privilege in my skin color, in my economic bracket, and in my education. I was also dealt cards of privilege in my strong sense of self and my capacity for love, joy, and also introspection. That’s not what makes me who I am. That’s just my opening hand.

I have tried to take those cards and turn them into a better person. I have tried to find the truth within myself for what I think matters, for the person I want to be in the world I want to help create. I have tried to build up a platform upon which I can stand through the storm. To create pillars that form a steady support so that when all else crashes down, my ideals can remain firm. I have tried to balance my life around my deliberate priorities, not the accidental ones that happen when I forget to pay attention.

And I still screw up. Everybody does.

My screw-ups are no bigger and no worse than anyone else’s. Even when they feel like they are. I might be mortified to admit to my long ream of mistakes and errors and shames, but they’re really no worse than anyone else’s. And, if nothing else, I can say that I don’t make the same horrible mistake twice. And that is worth a lot. Would it be better not to have made the mistake at all? Maybe. But there’s value in making it and learning better, too.

Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, obviously.

But if I let myself be defined by hurt, then I wouldn’t even be REMOTELY the same person.

This week is Thanksgiving, and I’ll be hosting a meal for others as usual. I’ve written before about what Thanksgiving means to me, the family and community of it, the deep gratitude I feel for all that I have been given and all that I have been able to give. So it works out that this is the week I finish thinking through my pillars, my guiding framework that helps me be who I want to be.

I am so grateful that I was blessed with a deep capacity for love and joy. I am so grateful that I have a Defiant streak that never quite seems to dim. I am so grateful that I have been able to Endure, that I have been able to find Courage in myself. I am so grateful that I have learned Kindness and Loyalty and can share them with those I love. And I’m grateful for the Honor to uphold these ideals, to stand up with this as my base.

Whatever else happens, whatever rocks my world next, good or bad, I’m grateful to have come so far, to have learned so much, and to still be learning. Whether I get my heart broken 100 times or some of my hopes make it to fruition, I have been better for the journey and I am better still for the journey to come.

I didn’t get this far in a vacuum — I got here only because of the many, many hands that held me up and guided me along and offered me support along the way. The only way I can ever repay them, any of them, is to make their gift of help and love for me into my gift of help and love for others. I can’t and won’t be anything but what I am.

And that is enough for me.

“If I have been of service, if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a successful day.”
–Alex Noble

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Who Am I? (Part 7: Defiance)

There are some things I’ve had to teach myself, some things I’ve had to learn — and then there are the things that have been a part of me from my very first breath. It takes time to comprehend Honor, or to build up Courage. It takes experience to practice Kindness or Loyalty.

But Defiance has defined me longer than anything else.

It was a friend in college who put words around that aspect of my personality. She gave me a CD mix waaaaaay back almost 15 years ago. And she called it “Willful Defiance of the Box.” When I asked her about it, she told me that’s how she sees what I do. It’s not just defying the box. It’s willful. It’s looking at that box and not just saying “no;” it’s saying “HELL NO.”

One of the formative books from my childhood is called Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. I was first introduced to the story when I was 10 years old, and it explained something I had always understood for myself — I learn nothing by doing what others do. I only learn, I only live, by doing things my way, in my own time, even if and when I do them alone. No one learns to fly by huddling on the ground with the flock.

You have to trust your wings, alone, strike out into the sky, prepare to fall, and dare yourself to soar.

You have to believe in “Defying Gravity,” Wicked-style:

So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Everyone deserves the chance to fly!”
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me:
Tell them how I’m defying gravity!

Defiance doesn’t mean I break rules; I’m not an anarchist. I respect the institutions of governance and follow laws because that’s part of the social contract that holds a nation together. But there are laws, and then there are the rules of society.

And the latter? Yeah, I break those.

I don’t wear makeup or high heels even though I’m a ciswoman. But I’m not butch or femme, either, even though I’m in a lesbian marriage. I challenge people in discussions rather than quietly keeping the peace when that challenge needs to be levied (yeah, I’m that person who points out when someone is being casually disrespectful or bigoted. Fucking deal with it, folks.). I talk openly about things like depression and mental health, even though apparently that’s still stigmatized? Not around me. I like cartoons even though I’m a grown woman. I write fanfic. I dance in my living room in my PJs. I run errands in sweatpants.

There are these ideas that a grown person does certain things and does not do certain things. And if there’s no good reason to abide by those ideas, well, feel the WOOOOOSH of me throwing them out the window.

Because I am myself. I won’t be less than that.

And anything asking me to step back and deny myself the truth of being myself, fully, joyfully, unapologetically, can go fuck itself with a rusty spork.

That “anything” can come from inside me, too.

When depression speaks up and tries to break me down, sometimes the only thing that shouts louder is my Defiance. When everything, everything, everything else gives way, sometimes the step back from the edge is nothing but pure obstinance on my part. If I let myself believe I can’t do something, that usually becomes the point at which I do it the hell anyway.

Defiance demands an exceptionally high level of self-accountability. Defiance isn’t just refusing to budge for no good reason — it demands the BEST reason. I don’t take random dares just to prove myself. That’s not what Defiance is about.

“Go play chicken with a train! I bet you won’t!”

Yeah, you’re right. I won’t. Even if you dare me. Even if you impugn my Honor or my sense of pride. I’m not an IDIOT. This isn’t me emulating Marty McFly and his pathological inability to stand down from a challenge per BTTF3.

Defiance means I know EXACTLY what I’m doing, and I’ve chosen it as the best, the ONLY course of action which is true to myself. I’ll steal another line from “Defying Gravity:”

(Glinda)
You can still be with the wizard
What you’ve worked and waited for
You can have all you ever wanted

(Elphaba)
I know
But I don’t want it
No
I can’t want it anymore
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game

Defiance means knowing that some things are better than others. And it’s easy to say “freedom is better than slavery” but what if “freedom” means social isolation due to being different, setting oneself deliberately apart, and “slavery” means the easier path of going along with the others? Defiance is the spark of eager fire that screams from inside my soul.

BE DIFFERENT. BE FIERCE. IT WILL BE WORTH IT.

And you know what? It is.

It’s the “two roads diverged in a wood” thing. But that scenario is misleading, because there is no one watching the traveler, no one whose opinion can weigh in on the outcome of which road gets chosen. I know for certain that I have not gotten at least one job because I showed up to the interview without makeup. I wore a suit, I was capable, I spoke well, but I didn’t fit the expectation of my gender — and that’s not what they wanted.

It’s really true that when people don’t want you the way you are, you probably don’t want them, either.

The best relationships I have are those when I can be the absolute most myself. When I can be whatever I am, unfiltered, unguarded. Defiance is bringing that truth out from the safety of my closest people and wearing it like a badge of pride.

I spent most of high school alone. I was never popular. I was bullied. I had few friends. I could go a whole week with minimal interaction with my peers that was at all positive. And did the silence and the unkindness claw at me? Yes, it did. But I chose to sacrifice all that for the gain of not having to sacrifice myself. And I’ve never regretted it.

Defiance isn’t just choosing to be an outcast. It’s finding glee in being outcast, because that is the truest affirmation of self.

It’s finding wholeness in the refusal to step back. It’s understanding that victory may hurt more than surrender, but surrender is untenable. Surrender is not death — it is UNMAKING.

And I won’t be unmade. By anything.

I never met an expectation I didn’t enjoy breaking. People look at me and expect me to be soft; I turn around and show them my badass side. People think I’m quiet because I don’t choose to gather with the others; I lift my head up and laugh knowing that I’m having more fun with my own company than I could ever have with them. I’m weird and wild, unconventional and proud of it. I don’t fit in lunchroom discussions of fashion and pop culture and trash TV. I don’t fit, and I love myself better for not trying to fit.

I don’t actually know if this happens to other people. I only know me.

Do you ever look up at a moon, or stars, or a glorious sunset, or a violent storm, and feel yourself burst? Feel like what is held inside your chest making your heart pump faster and faster cannot possibly fit inside your body? That within you lives a soul that doesn’t shout or sing — it SCREAMS. It BELLOWS. And the world roars back like a salute. WE SEE YOU. YOU ARE ALIVE.

Not a song, but poetry this time:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
–Walt Whitman

Defiance is honoring the star that was born inside my heart, the fire that never goes out. Defiance is looking at a black and white world and refusing to give up on dreams of the rainbow. Defiance is spreading wings and taking to the air, even when I fly alone. Defiance is being myself because anything less is not worth the cost.

Because I would rather be myself, just the way I am, and be alone in that, then stand in a crowd. The crowd offers safety, a place to rest, acceptance, and ease.

But why do things the easy way, the safe way, the restful way, when I can do them by myself, for myself, in my own way?

Of all the decisions I’ve made, and the things I’ve done that weren’t really decisions, to be Defiant was never really a choice at all. It was a necessity. It was breathing.

Because if I can’t be myself, then who the hell am I? And what the fuck is the point of it all?

If I gave up on me, I wouldn’t BE me. I would die off, and some doppelganger would take my place with my skin and my hands and my scars, but none of my spark. We are all, every single one of us, an endangered species. There is only one of any of us in the world.

I’m not going to let the world hunt me to extinction for its convenience. I’m not going to let society silence the song inside me. I’m not going to let my inner fire be quenched. Not by well-meaning friends, and not by antagonistic opponents. Not by those I love, and not by the voices inside me.

I Defy the boxes. I Defy the rules. I Defy the darkness inside me and I burn with light against it. I Defy the assumptions of others and I Defy my own assumptions. I Defy, because I am alive.

And I am stronger for my Defiance. I am proud. I am free. I have no regrets.

So I’ll get a dozen more rejections on the novel. I’ll lose friends, or pass by opportunities. I’ll get weird looks in the grocery store. I’ll make mistakes and hate myself for them.

But I will stand up again.

I will lift up my head and I will grin at the moon.

I will REFUSE TO BACK DOWN.

It doesn’t matter how much it hurts. It doesn’t matter if I stand alone. It doesn’t matter if it tears me to nothing. It doesn’t matter what I lose.

I would rather keep what I have and gain more. Because it will be TRUE. It will be MINE.

And if I succeed at LITERALLY NOTHING in this world, then I will succeed at BEING MYSELF.

No matter what anyone has to say about it. No matter what it costs me.

I stand in Defiance.

Hear my YAWP and tremble.

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Who Am I? (Part 6: Endurance)

The timing for this particular entry is weird as hell. Not only is this the day before the election, but it’s also a day with 2 separate family medical issues which have made any amount of focus today difficult at the least. And yet…Endurance. Sometimes the world’s just like that.

I have also received my very first rejection for the novel currently being queried. And yet, after receiving that rejection, I had some feelings and then I sent out 6 more queries.

Endurance isn’t one of the values that get listed when people make their lists. Ask someone what the most important qualities in a person are and they’ll tell you things like loyalty or honesty or courage. You might get perseverance, if someone is really thinking about it. But Endurance? To me, it’s one of the most important, and yet it’s easy to miss.

Courage is choosing to act in spite of fear or pain, because to act is worth the consequences even when they’re scary.

Endurance is taking one more step, no matter what.

So it doesn’t matter how much Courage you have, if you fold after the first consequences sink in. You can gather your Courage and march into the fire because it’s the right thing to do, but if you haven’t got the ability to Endure, your Courage may not carry you to the end. Courage is a choice to act in spite of consequences. Endurance is acting in spite of consequences even when Courage is gone.

It’s also known as Stubbornness.

Courage is what lets me look at a climbing wall which scares me and start going up it. But at some point, getting to the top stops being about Courage. It stops being an act of bravery (or Defiance) and becomes only a grind, a step-by-step refusal to back down. Because I’m here, dammit, and I’m not giving up until I’ve succeeded.

Sometimes, for me, Endurance takes the form of just doing one more. One more minute of exercise. One more attempt to be heard. One more day before the depression lets up. One more try to get the song right. One more chance taken. One more step before turning back. One more breath that burns.

When Sarah has trouble with executive decisions, we’ve found that it can be because she can’t compartmentalize or break stuff down. She can’t turn “clean the house” into “first do X, then do Y, then do Z.” She needs the pieces to be smaller so she can absorb them. But the same is true for coping with depression, or anxiety, or pain. It can be difficult to say “I will break this habit forever and ever starting right now.” It can be easier to say, “I only have to break it this time.”

There’s another quote for this one by Albert Einstein:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

I demand the best of myself. I demand of myself that, if I choose a course of action, that I will follow it come hell or high water or fog or fire. It’s the Honor of a promise I have made to myself. But with that comes the slog of getting from the point of making the promise to seeing it through. And that slog can be long.

When writing is difficult, I might only be able to force 200 words out of me, instead of the 2,000 which used to be my norm. But just because it is difficult, just because it feels like lifting cement trucks with my pinkie, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. It just means I have to work harder, or longer.

Kindness lets me forgive myself when I need to; Endurance means I push to the goddamn edge before I do.

I think that’s one of the things that has helped me become competent as a leader, or as a troubleshooter. Because people know when I take stuff on, it gets done. Even if it’s late, even if it costs me blood and sweat and tears, they know my word is good and I’ll push through somehow. Endurance means I can take on my burden and that of someone else, because I’m not about to set it down once I’ve begun.

Endurance also means being able to stand pain when it comes.

When I was in college, I came down with something called costochondritis. What it means, basically, is that sometimes the lining inside my ribcage will get swollen or otherwise irritated, and it will crack against my ribs. When it happens now and strikes out of nowhere but I know what it is, it feels a bit like taking a cement ice pick to the pectoral.

In college, when I was 20 years old and had no idea what was going on or how to manage it, it was TERRIFYING.

It came on strong, and it ended with me in the ER several times until the doctors finally identified why I had this extreme chest pain that had me rolling and crying in agony at random intervals. (It also ended with me on doses of codeine and ibuprofen that would make most pharmacists balk until we got it under control.) The pain would strike and I would be lost in helpless waves of screaming electricity pretending to be nerve responses. I remember a lot of crying and whimpering. It was the worst physical pain, bar none, I had ever experienced, and the worst since.

I taught myself to breathe without moving my ribcage, and I taught myself to Endure.

The episodes could last for seconds or minutes. And I found that I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t face the idea of that pain for minutes at a time, prone to happen any time I was under stress (or fighting a chest cold) for the rest of my life. But I could face it for one breath the next time it came. And after I took that breath, I could take one more.

Similarly, when I hit a downswing and my depression is trying to ruin all that I am and replace it with things I never want to be, I might not be able to fathom handling that roiling awfulness for days or weeks without end. I might look ahead and despair. But I can get through this next hour. I can get through today. I can get through the next thing on my list. And when that is passed, then I can tackle the one that comes after.

And I truly value that in myself.

The world is full of things I can’t control just like I can’t control when my brain will start playing dirty or my chest wall will decide to crackle. What I can control is what I choose to do when those things happen.

And I choose to Endure. I choose to take one more step, no matter what it costs me. Even when Courage has failed, when Honor would be satisfied, when Kindness would forgive a lapse. When all else is exhausted, Endurance remains. Endurance is my ability to hold on past any reasonable point, and sticking it out to the end.

Compared to Endurance, Courage is easy. Courage is making the right decision and being willing to accept consequences. But Endurance is actually experiencing those consequences, drowning in them, being burned in their flames, and STILL MAKING THE DAMN DECISION.

I think I conflate Endurance with perseverance in the way I think about them. Because perseverance is “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success” and Endurance is “the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.” Perseverance is about succeeding on matter the difficulty. Endurance doesn’t assume success — it just refuses failure.

Because sometimes the very best you can do is refuse to fail.

When I was a kid at summer camp, there were several high-ropes courses, and one year I got stuck on one. It was a telephone pole that you had to climb, and at the top you had to get so you could stand on top of it. Then you’d jump to a trapeze and come down. And I had no issue climbing the pole, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the transition to get on top of it without pitching off sideways. I was probably up there for 20 minutes, too afraid to shove myself upwards and fall, too stubborn to give up and come down. For 20 minutes, the best I could hope for was a draw — I hadn’t failed, but I hadn’t succeeded.

Eventually I got sick of just holding on at a standstill and I found enough Courage to push myself upwards. But that was as much because the activity was coming to an end and we had to go do other things as anything else — never confuse desperation for Courage because they are very different even if they turn out looking similarly — and I couldn’t actually remain stalemated against the stupid telephone pole forever.

But there are plenty of places where you might not be able to engineer a victory and yet can stave off defeat.

I may never get rid of the chest pain thing, or the depression. I may have to live my whole life knowing that either one could pop up at any point and decide to make today all about them.

But I can fight them every single time they come around, and at the end, it’ll be me that emerges. Not because I’m brave enough to fight back, but because I’m stubborn enough never to give in.

I might even be in too much pain to be brave, physically or emotionally, but I can still imitate the nearest piece of granite and refuse to budge or chip or wear away.

And so when I get my next rejection on the novel, I’m still going to send another query out anyway. I’m still going to get hurt, and I’m still going to be upset probably, and I’m still not going to be eager to repeat the experience. But I’ve got the Courage for that moment of hitting send on an email, and Endurance to hold me steady whatever comes of it.

I don’t think that I have more fortitude than others; that’s not what all this means. But I’m proud of my ability to Endure. I’m proud of the fact that I can lose and lose and lose again and still try to stand up one more time for one more blow. And by adding Endurance to my pillars, by calling it out as one of my central tenants, then that keeps me accountable. I have the ability to Endure — it is on me to practice it. Otherwise, what is the point of the strength I was blessed with?

Besides, it’s nice to have a fallback.

If Honor isn’t enough to get me doing the right thing at the right time, then Courage will help me do it. If Courage fails and all that’s left is unpleasantness (or worse), then Endurance will carry me forward on the path that was worth getting so far in the first place.

And if Endurance fails?

Well.

Then Defiance will spark Courage anew, and we’ll start over.

Because in the very, very end, anything that wants me beaten down that badly absolutely deserves to be disappointed.

So, next week — Defiance.

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